I gave the sermon below on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 2012, a few weeks prior to the election. Much of it holds true even more so today.
A story is told about a Jew in the 1920s who travels from his small Polish shtetl to Warsaw. When he returns, he tells his friend of the wonders he has seen: “I met a Jew who had grown up in a yeshiva and knew large sections of the Talmud by heart. And I met a Jew who as an atheist. I met a Jew who owned a clothing store with many employees and I met a Jew who was an ardent Communist.”
“So what’s so strange?” his friend asked him. Warsaw is a big city – there must be a million Jews there.
“You don’t understand,” the man said to his friend. “It was the same Jew.”
Part of what it means to be a Jew is to argue. We don’t argue just with ourselves. We love politics, and we really love Presidential campaigns. Campaign discourse is rough; it always been. I did some research - In 1828 the Presidential incumbent, John Quincy Adams, was literally called a pimp. The challenger, Andrew Jackson, was accused of adultery and murder. In the 1830s, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congential condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of having unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.
It’s comforting, in a strange sort of way, to read these examples, to know that a lot has been said, that a lot can be said, and the Republic still survives. I wondered for a while, “Does it have to be this way?” And the answer is, “Probably, yes.” The fact that one candidate will win and one must lose means that the goal of all campaign rhetoric is victory, not truth. So all campaigns engage in a sort of warfare – and because we all vote, it means that we are all involved. If you’re a guy in a house in the plains of North Dakota, you’re a small player; if you’re a precinct captain in Ohio, you’re a bigger player. But we’re all a part of this war – note that campaign can be used to describe military campaigns as well as political campaigns – these campaigns have the capacity to add an element of warfare to all our discourse.
The debates we watch every four years are not a conversation between two candidates trying to understand each other; they are a contest, a drama not only to score points in front of people watching, but to deliver a sound bite or enact a lasting moment that will make the news and, by making the news, gain valuable free media time to get more votes. We see two people on a stage talking with each other, but they are not talking with each other to explore each other’s opinions; they have a goal: to win votes by arguing well on national television. They may listen to each other, but they only listen because not-listening risks being seen as unlikeable or rude by a huge television audience. The debates of course, are only a miniature, though rather intense, enactment of a campaign drama in which we are all made both players and spectators.
Campaigns also involve canvasing, another type of non-conversation conversation which serve one of two utilitarian purposes: either to get people who agree with you to be sure to vote or to get people who disagree with you or who are on the fence about the election to vote for the candidate you support.
Why is canvasing a non-conversation conversation? First, because before canvasing conversations begin, one thing must be clear in the mind of the person out seeking votes: under no circumstances should I enter into a conversation with someone who might change my mind and convince me to vote for someone else. Second, once a canvasing conversation begins, it’s good to listen, but why? One reason is that, like in the debates, non-listening can appear rude – and that’s not effective for vote getting. We should practice “patient listening,” a type of listening which involves appearing like we are paying attention, even, if possible, agreeing with things the person is saying, but all the while waiting for the person to finish so that we can begin to speak. We can also practice “strategic listening,” in which we listen in order to find areas of commonality or the best angle for convincing the person that they should vote with us. Canvasing conversations are governed by one final rule: If it becomes apparent that the person cannot be persuaded, the conversation should end because the value of the conversation is determined by whether or not another vote can be secured for the campaign. There is no reason for the conversation to continue if that goal can’t be achieved. Time is a valuable resource for the campaign that should be deployed as efficiently as possible for the purposes of winning.
Please don’t misunderstand me - I am not opposed to elections. Quite the opposite – I am grateful for them. First, as far as ways for determining who should be in power, elections are the civilized alternative to war. So while it may be true that, as Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried,” that still makes elections a great way of figuring out who should have power. Even more, when I was a swimmer, I never swam as fast when I tried to beat the clock as when I tried to beat the other guy. There is something is competition that raises us beyond what we can do alone, and there is something in political contests that has the capacity, at least, to clarify our thinking and to get us more involved in our democracy and public life. But if we are honest, we can admit that whether it’s people working the “ground game” or ads flooding the airwaves, whether it is the candidates themselves or their surrogates or the Super Pacs, all of it is, at least in part if not mostly, discourse of a utilitarian nature. It is about a very very high stakes race or contest, or game. The problem is: life is not a game, and not everywhere should become a battlefield.
Please don’t misunderstand me – I am also not seeking a suffocating silence. I was talking with a Professor at Duke the other day who remarked to me that today’s undergraduates have lost the art of disagreement. What she meant is not that disagreements on campus turn into shouting matches and name calling, but rather, public conversations have dissolved into meaningless affirmations of what we all have in common rather than honest, articulate disagreement. My suspicion is that students have very different viewpoints but instead of disagreeing with each other, they affirm each other in public and then each side retreats to the echo chambers of their particular communities where everyone agrees with them and then, safe from challenge and public scrutiny, they say what they really feel.
But it is not only the young who can’t disagree any more – it is all of us. Whether it’s Israel or health care or the economy, we either speak with, or listen to, or read those who make us feel safe or our conversations descend into shouting matches and personal attacks which, by the way, if you are Republican, are always what Democrats do, and if you are a Democrat, that is always what Republicans do.
Our bodies cannot survive if we are exposed to the tension and adrenaline of battle for too long. We cannot constantly be at war or our bodies will simply collapse. Campaigns too must have boundaries. First, they have to have an ending. Our politicians will tell us – though I recognize that, when they do, they will do so at least in part to get our votes – that on Wednesday, November 7th, we cannot simply start campaigning again to beat the other guy, but rather we need to return to being one country – not red or blue. I think they are right. But they will only do so if we demand of our leaders that the campaigns stop.
Until November 7th, even, and perhaps especially, while the campaigns are going on, I believe we also need to preserve certain places, times, and relationships where campaign discourse stops and a different kind of discourse begins. If campaigns seep too deeply into the life of our national and local communities, if life becomes one long campaign rather than a discreet period leading up to an election, our personal, and interpersonal, lives will be impoverished. Where and when might these places be?
A synagogue wouldn’t be a synagogue without politics :-) But I do think our conversations on Shabbat and at kiddush should be different. Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about politics? No – I do not believe that Judaism should wall itself off from the world. You have heard me say before that if what we do in synagogue makes no difference to who we are when leave, then something has fundamentally failed in what we do. But when we talk about politics, our conversations should not be of a utilitarian nature; they should embody the deepest notions of Jewish dialogue.
First – we must be willing to truly listen. Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, I have gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).” (Mishnah Avot 4:1). When we talk at kiddush, do we really believe we can learn from anyone? Rob Eshman, the editor for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, recently wrote: “[N]o party, like no person, is invested with perfect insight and far-seeing wisdom. Fixing Medicare? Boosting unemployment? Defanging Iran? To quote Woody Allen, most of us don’t even know how a can opener works. So why, come election season, do we pretend otherwise?” We must begin with a deep sense of the complexity of the problems we face and the possibility that Jewish values – such as compassion for the poor, education and equality, support of Israel, family and fidelity – these things are not the province of one party only. The world is too vast; life is too complex – the wise person believes that she can learn from everyone, maybe even especially those who differ from us, and our conversations should reflect that humility and curiosity.
Second, we must be willing to embrace contradictory truths. The 10 commandments begins, “vayidaber elohim et kol hadevarim haeleh lamor” - “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). Emphasizing that God’s revelation was words – in the plural - the Tosefta says, “One might say to oneself, “Since the House of Shammai says ‘impure’ and the House of Hillel says ‘pure,’ one prohibits and one permits, why should I continue to learn Torah?” Therefore the Torah says, “And God spoke all these words.” All these words were given by a single Shepherd…Therefore make your heart into a many-chambered room, and bring into it both the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, both the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit. (Tosefta Sotah 7:12) Can we make of our heart a many chambered room? Is our heart open to contradictory judgments? As my teacher Rabbi Harold Shulweis once wrote, “The heart must be humble enough not to insulate itself in one room, locking out all others and maintaining that it alone possesses the heartbeat of God? Inclusiveness and humility struggle against the hard disjunctive that would compel us to choose either/or. That hardness is the way of idolatry that deifies a part as if it were the whole.” Campaigns demand hardness; the synagogue demands humility.
And finally, the nature of our arguments must be such that we can hold each other in relationship until our love is restored? In the Talmud, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: “If a father and son or a teacher and a student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies to one another, they should not move from there until their love for one another is restored.” (Talmud Kiddushin 30b) And The Talmud in Yevamot says, “Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel were in disagreement - what the one forbade, the other permitted – nevertheless, the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the school of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. The Hebrew word for our arguing partner is chevruta – from which we get the same word chaver – friend. Can we remain one community? Can we remain one people? Can we remain one country? Can we remain friends? I believe that the answer to those questions will be seen in whether we can hold each other, stick with each other, not move from that place of argument until our love is restored.
Before I conclude, let me add one caveat. It can fairly be asked, “How far do you push your listening? True listening demands that I hold myself open to being changed by the wisdom of another, but must I really be completely open? The answer is no. Just as if I am talking with a Christian or a Muslim, I need not be open to being converted away from Judaism, if I am listening to or reading a viewpoint vastly different from my own there is a part of me that should remain core, untouchable – what the Hasidic tradition calls our “shoresh haneshama” – our soul root. But our souls are more complex; they are not one or the other, but rather mosaics. And so we can engage with another and still know who we are.
Let me conclude with one of my favorite passages from Emerson and a prayer. Emerson once wrote:
We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and sin, with souls that made our souls wiser: that spoke what we thought: that told us what we knew: that gave us leave to be what we inly were…”
May the conversations of our community make our souls wise, may they give us leave to be who we inly are. This Rosh Hashanah, I pray for the world. I pray this for the United States. And this Rosh Hashanah, I pray for our community, and for all of us, that we might recover the lost art of disagreement. I pray for the gratitude for being able to participate in a vibrant democracy that can withstand a war of words, and for the wisdom to hold each other until our love is restored.